How to get through the door to violence

If you can’t get through the door, you are not likely to be much help to families in trouble and need — nor, more important, to their children. The Maori Women’s Welfare League, which can open doors, can tell you that.

So can Shine, an Auckland NGO (non-government organisation) which has begun a three-month pilot of a Paula Bennett initiative to get more effective “low-key” intervention to head off domestic violence and protect under-2s.

This is “privatisation” — but of a sort most social democrats approve, the sort that, if done well, enables the state to do its work better.

This privatisation is aimed at supplementing, not supplanting, what the state does (though some ministers lean to the latter). It is not the privatisation most people think of — flogging off state assets to profiteers — nor the privatisation the capital market development taskforce will recommend next week and the government will follow next term — minority selldowns of state enterprises to mum-and-dad investors.

Helen Clark, confirmed state-revering social democrat, nonetheless used to say, when Minister of Housing in 1987-89, that only church and other charities which had local knowledge and feet on the ground could find and help some homeless. As Prime Minister she praised some non-state social enterprises.

There are six dimensions to what the Shine pilot exemplifies of the Bennett ambition.

One picks up a theme Judith Collins ran as Bennett’s opposition forerunner and Bill English has been pumping this year: deliver more services through not-for-profits and other non-state agencies — if they can do it more imaginatively, effectively or efficiently.

Shine claims to be the largest single charitable entity dealing with family violence, of 400 scattered through the country. It has 44 staff, 20 contractors and 50 volunteers, a budget of more than $2 million and many government contracts. It’s perennially underfunded, of course.

The second dimension echoes another Collins theme: that there are far too many NGOs, of widely varying quality, on government contracts. She wanted some consolidation. Bennett says when she came to office no one could tell her “what worked and what didn’t work” — that is, which were effective. Many welfare, housing, health, mental health, rehabilitation and education NGOs are long on noble intentions but short on capability.

And their contracts are cumbersome — that is the third dimension. Shine’s pilot is piloting a cut-down contract focused on the outcome. The payoff, in theory, is innovation. That requires trust and involves risk. It requires rigorous evaluation, a neglected activity which Bennett is promising to fund through a new agency.

The fourth dimension is meshing with state agencies. In the Clark years state social agencies got better at coordinating their and NGOs’ work, with a lead agency — in the case of domestic violence, usually the police and Child, Youth and Family (CYF).

The police have been referring all cases involving children to CYF, inundating it and distracting it from dealing with the most serious case of abuse or neglect. NGOs like Shine now collaborate in the sifting.

The fifth dimension is acceptability. The police and CYF are formidable and, to some, intimidating agents of the state. A low-key community organisation is more likely to get through the door and thus start the sort of “conversation” (to use the jargon) which can change behaviour.

The sixth dimension is the people with most to gain: in the Shine pilot the under-2s, the mother and the wider family — and, ultimately, all of us.

The critical importance of good food in the womb and of food for body and brain in the first two years of life plus absence of violence to mother and child is well established by research, some of the best of which has been done in this country.

That early experience goes a long way to defining the limits of achievement in later life — or, in the worst cases, triggering bad and eventually criminal behaviour, drug and alcohol abuse and mental illness.

That is not only a cost to the individuals — and probably to their children in turn — but also a terrible economic cost, in lost contribution or in health and other treatment or time in prison. Estimates of the total cost range up to and over $1 billion a year.

Prevention is cheaper. Shine’s task in the pilot is to visit families, identify which ones need heavy-duty state action and work with the less “risky” ones.

Ho hum. Pilots are two-a-penny. They are typically underfunded by niggardly ministers. Violence gets worse. We lose more kids. We are impoverished along with them. Why should we think the Shine experiment might be new and meaningful?

Answer1: it is short and tightly focused — prototype is a better description. Bennett’s plan is “small, concerted steps”.

Answer 2: Bennett says her top priority is ante-natal and very early childhood care. John Key has explicitly told her to go for it. Test them both in 2014.